The New Orleans Pelicans are heading to the NBA playoffs after taking down the Los Angeles Clippers, 105-101, on Friday night and will now square off against the Phoenix Suns in the No 1. vs. No. 8 matchup in the Western Conference.
Despite the fact that they were without the services of Paul George, who was ineligible to play in the game after entering the league's health and safety protocols, the Clippers were able to make a run after falling behind by double digits to Brandon Ingram and the Pelicans. In the end, however, it was not enough to get the job done as New Orleans ultimately came out on top. With the win, the Pelicans will next square off against the Suns on Sunday night with the opening tip scheduled for 9 p.m. ET.
With the loss, the Clippers see their season come to an end in what has to be a disappointing fashion given the expectations they had after adding George and Kawhi Leonard to their roster.
Here are three key takeaways from the game:
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1. Ingram delivers
About 90 seconds into the game, Brandon Ingram pulled up for a mid-range jumper to give the Pelicans their first points of the game. A few possessions later he did it again. And then again, and again and again. He poured in 16 points in the first quarter alone, en route to a 30-point, six-rebound, six-assist performance that was one of the best of his young career.
The No. 2 overall pick back in 2016, Ingram has never played in a playoff game, and came into the play-in tournament determined to change that fact.
"Man it feels wonderful," Ingram said. "Just to have a chance to be in the postseason this year. Never had a winning record, never been in the postseason. To get a chance to showcase my talent on the biggest stage is beautiful."
For a large chunk of the second half, it looked like Ingram and the Pelicans might not get there. They let a 16-point lead slip away, and Ingram went cold along with the rest of the team. But after being stifled by Nic Batum for stretches, Ingram finally figured things out in the fourth. He scored seven of his 30 points in the frame, and had some huge baskets as the Pelicans fought their way back.
This hasn't been the easiest season for Ingram, as injuries limited him to 55 games, and he had to shoulder much of the offensive load with Zion Williamson not playing. But he's healthy now, and when the season was on the line he delivered in a major way.
"Brandon Ingram is the truth," Pelicans head coach Willie Green said. "He just brought it. He had that look in his eye from the time we got on the plane, to shootaround. He's been locked in. He has been waiting for this moment, for this type of moment. His preparation is off the charts. This summer he went six-seven hours a day. He believes in his teammates. He's all you want and more in a player and a person."
2. The play-in tournament wins
When the NBA first decided to test out the play-in tournament in the bubble back in 2020, no one knew if it was going to be a short experiment or the beginning of a new postseason era. After this week, there's no more guesswork necessary. The play-in tournament is awesome and it's here to stay.
It will continue to have its detractors because of scenarios just like this, where the Clippers lost Paul George for one game and were then knocked out of the playoffs by a team that finished six games behind them in the standings. To be honest, that's not an unreasonable position, but it won't be enough to sway the league.
The play-in tournament improves the regular season by adding extra importance to games down the stretch that were meaningless for so long, and the revenue that the extra national TV games brings is not insignificant. Most important of all, though, the actual basketball provides excellent drama. These winner-take-all games are extremely rare in the NBA, and we now get a full week of them. You can see how much winning these games matters to the players, and there's nothing better than emotional, high-stakes basketball.
Just listen to this Willie Green speech:
Friday night's game was a perfect example. If the NBA wants to make the case for the play-in tournament, it should just replay this game on a loop. Or even just the second half, which was one of the best 24 minutes of basketball we've seen all season long. Both teams made a double-digit comeback after the break, as the game went right down to the final seconds before the Pelicans pulled it out.
3. Pelicans' bench steps up
If all you did was check the final game stats, you would likely skim over the bench points section which shows the Pelicans outscoring the Clippers 37-33 in that category. On paper, that's such a small statistical difference that it doesn't seem noteworthy. In practice, though, the Pelicans' bench was the difference in the game because it came up clutch down the stretch.
Larry Nance Jr., Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado came up with big plays time and again to key the Pelicans' fourth-quarter comeback and make sure they secured the victory. Nance and Murphy both played nearly the entire fourth quarter, and combined for 13 points, nine rebounds and three assists in the frame. Alvarado, meanwhile, only had two rebounds and an assist on the stat sheet, but his hustle plays were crucial in the turnaround.
After the Clippers' small-ball approach stunned the Pelicans in the third quarter, Willie Green responded by going small as well, and played Nance at center down the stretch. That turned out to be a brilliant move. Nance feasted on the glass, played strong defense and came up with some timely buckets.
As for Murphy, he did exactly what the team was hoping for when they drafted him in the first round last year: shoot the lights out. He came up with three huge triples in the fourth, including one to tie the game with 4:40 remaining, and another to put the Pels up seven and essentially seal the game with 2:10 left.